Wednesday, December 12, 2018

1989 Merlin Titanium (Update)

You wouldn't know it at first glance, but behind the subtle and unassuming facade of this bike hides a truly amazing and fun machine. It's taken a little while but I think I pretty much have this bike dialed in and would love to share this update with you.

I originally bought this bike back in 2012 and it took me just under two years to complete the restoration and my initial build. Back then I was just getting my initial exposure into the world on WTB and the Marin culture and this was to be my first bike bearing a nearly complete WTB group. 

My first attempt was pretty good (see original post here), but not great. I lacked a proper fork capable of running roller cam brake and a few details remained to get sorted out, but despite that I quickly fell in love with the ride.

Fast forward a year and a Potts CCR donor and my original vision for the bike was nearly complete. While the original Koski fork was actually quite nice, it did chatter a bit under heavy braking and the combination of rear RC and front Shimano cantis felt imbalanced. Adding a custom painted Steve Potts Type 2 and a WTB SpeedMaster roller cam gave the front end a welcome shot of adrenaline. A couple small changes and mods including swapping the white turbo for a nice perforated black, the somewhat boring M730 crank was replaced by a much cooler Cook Bros RSRs complete with matching caps, a wide Titanium bar and a few small tweaks like adding black anodized RC cam plates and color matched o-rings on the Ringle cam twists completed the build. I came very close to getting a WTB fixed angle seat post and a fillet brazed Potts stem which would have been the icing on the cake but that didn't pan out.

I'm incredibly happy with the end result. The build sticks with an overall WTB inspired theme which although may not have been a default configuration for most back in the late 80s, it makes for a sophisticated and yet highly capable off road group.

I've had the chance to build a couple Merlins over the past couple years, and they builds are always challenging. Well, at least in my opinion. Personally I find that Merlins, compared to other bikes have a pretty narrow range of build options. I think WTB or IRD angles are pretty much the best two routes aside from a classic Shimano or Suntour build, but aside from that I feel like loud builds just don't work for these classic frames.

Among the 1" Merlin frames this particular design is more or less the most trail worthy one. The very early bikes (check out this 86 Fat Chance Ti which is really one of the first Merlins) are quite unique and arguably more desirable but due to limitations of materials the tubesets were small diameter and the resulting bikes were flexy and not very memorable off road. By contrast this design was one of the more refined and short of the s-bend stay bikes which are hard to find with 1" head tubes and roller cam mounts which is something I really wanted for this build. By the time this design went into production Merlin had developed its own Titanium 3-2.5 tubeset. The 3-2.5 designation refers to the alloy of Titanium used in the construction of the tubing, it's 94.5% Titanium, 3% Aluminum and 2.5% Vanadium.

It's sort of funny that back in the day words like Titanium, Carbon or the type of Aluminium alloy used in the construction of the bike were prominently featured as a part of the branding. In fact, here it's dual use as it's both the model name and primary material of frame construction.

While there are multitudes of forks capable of mounting roller cam brakes, the Potts Type 2 stands a head above the rest. Not only is the design an absolute classic, but it is a simple joy off road. It's lighter and stiffer than most forks of the era, and yet highly forgiving and compliant. Keeping in theme with the orange o-ring of the WTB / Chris King Grease Guard headset thee fork received a little bit of orange pin striping at the transition between the crown and blades.

Drivetrain options for the late 90s were still pretty limited and if you want reliable performance, then Shimano's XT group was the way to go. This bike is equipped with Shimano XT derailleurs, thumbshifters and brake levers. The bottom bracket is a press in unit with a 17mm Titanium spindle. I'm not sure whether it's a testament to how much I've ridden this bike or the fact that the BB bearings are grossly undersized, but I'm on my second set of bearings in less than three years. The hubs are WTB classic with a custom built, wide range Dura Ace freewheel. Cook Bros RSR cranks with Shimano SG rings round out the drivetrain package.

There is a lot to talk about on this bike, but perhaps the most noticeable are the WTB SpeedMaster Roller Cam brakes. As I said earlier this was my first WTB equipped bike and having grown up on cantilevers and Shimano U-brakes, these brakes were an eye opener. It took a while to learn how to set up these brakes, and I'm sure have room to improve, but they are simply amazing. As this bike is a full on rider I usually switch to modern Kool Stop Eagle pads, and I didn't have time to put on the proper WTB pads to complete the package, getting vintage tires on was enough of a chore. Also, I'm noticing that this bike has yet to receive upgraded pad holder washers like the rest of my WTB fleet. The beveled washers look nice, but are prone to cracking so I had some replacements made in the style that Charlie Cunningham used on his bikes.

I've always loved the seat cluster on these bikes. It's tidy and simple but then you get this cool cable guide made out of Ti tubing and precisely bent around the seat tube. This little bit gets me everytime, it looks like they must have filled them with sand or used a mandrel bending machine as there is no evidence of any deformation as a result of the bends. In addition to that the seat binder was machined out of a solid Titanium rod to ensure durability over a long expected life. Just a testament to the craftsmanship and thought that went into these bikes. 

I'm not very big on stickers on my bikes, but this one seemed not only fitting but also kind of subtle and so it doesn't really feel ostentatious.

The water jet cut dropouts were made out of solid chunks of 6-4 Titanium alloy which was much more durable than the 3-2.5 used in the tubeset. While I'm not sure how much use the bike had when I restored it, but the derailleur hanger was in perfect alignment. No matter how you cut it that's over 25 years of use, worth every penny.

Back in the day Titanium bikes came with a variety of finishes. GT and Litespeed were known for their highly polished look, while Merlin, Dean and a few others went for a more satin finish. The latter is definitely not as exciting, but it tends to hide scuffs and scratches and ages really nicely, and is very easy to maintain.

The cockpit is pretty basic with a Salsa Moto stem, a wide WTB Titanium bar and Shimano XT controls. I suppose a Cook Bros or IRD stems might be a bit more saucy, but the Salsa Moto is a classic design and was commonly spec'd on Merlins back in the day.

 head on

Final comment on the BB, I think you can clearly see how small the tube and the corresponding bearings are. This is the only real design flaw on this bike, and the only thing that keeps me looking for a 1" s-bend frame with roller cam mounts. The BB junction is quite flexy and the bearings are prone to frequent failure. While this is by no way a deal breaker, I would much rather have a larger diameter, threaded BB shell and a stiffer frame.

While this bike lacks the later model's Grease Guard equipped bottom bracket, all of the remaining bearings are so equipped. This system though long forgotten and a bit of a joke in some circles represents the way some people used to think about bikes. They were meant to not only perform, but last and be easy to service. Sure sealed bearings are nice and can be replaced, but not infinitely. I've had several Ringle hubs that would no longer retain the bearings firmly after pulling the original pair. I've seen modern carbon bikes exhibit the same problem. With this system your year end ritual is quite simple, just inject new grease and wipe away the old, done!

While this Merlin is hardly rare or truly exotic it's easily one of my favorite bikes and at the top of my keeper list. It's a bike I can spend hours on an feel comfortable and one I can go out on and hammer for an hour. At least hammer as much as I can on any bike, which isn't all that much. Suffice it to say, it's a great all around bike that has very few if any limitations when compared to other bikes of the era, and is in fact more durable than most. Lately biking has been became a much bigger part of my mental fitness, I need a good ride to keep myself sane. For that I need a bike that becomes an extension is not something I have to think about, and this bike is just that. You just got out and ride and the bike is there with you, doing what you want and accommodating your mood and ability right then and there. I feel like I never have to worry about gearing, braking, or scratching the bike. It all just works and adds to my enjoyment and ability to stay in the moment. Maybe that's why I like this bike so much.

If you're on the lookout for a vintage Ti bike I strongly recommend an early Merlin (see my review of the 1996 XLM for comparison), you can easily put together a competent build for under a grand and have a cool and historic bike that you can ride on any given day and come away with a big smile. Trust me on this one!